Thursday, February 28, 2008

Greek Modernism

Greek graphic design legends Freddy Carabott, Michalis Katzourakis and Agni Katzouraki, all of them well in their 80s now, threw a retrospective exhibition at the new Benaki Museum in Athens. It opened at the end of January and it'll be on till the end of March. I'm so bad at posting in time on this blog, and now, a month after, the spectacular opening of their breathtaking exhibition seems more or less like a memory - but had I sat down after visiting it and wrote my impressions, then i'd produce an post full of uncontrollable enthusiasm and joy.

I met them a couple of weeks before the opening for an interview they'd give me for an Athenian free press magazine, "LIFO". It was hard, being a young designer, talking to the semigods. Dimitris Arvanitis was there too. Four semigods of the field sitting next to me, answering to my questions and discussing design stuff. It was so hard, it brought up so many of my insecurities, I dreamed the following night that Mr. Katzourakis was telling me "Who the hell you think you are, asking these dumb questions. Get a life, moron". He had such an authority telling me this, I almost woke up in self-deprecating tears. Mr. Carabott produced some of the most amazing stories and answers, but the magazine stuff cut half of it due to the sheer size of the final text (about 4.000 words).

The day of the exhibition, I was asked by the loveliest man on earth, Mr. Carabott, to translate from english to greek a small text Ben Bos, the former AGI president, would read at the museum's amphiteatre prior to the opening of the exhibition. I was, what the heck, i'll do it. But i didn't know it would be the amphiteatre, nor that it would be packed. I thought I'd be translating to a small audience of maybe 20,30 people at the museum cafe. I was very nervous, naturally, mixing up microphones and not knowing what to do with my hands, body, look, and breath. I hate public performances of any sort. Anyway, i did it. And it was kinda funny as well, cause I sat at the same table with Ben Bos, the Greek Graphic Designer's Association president, a politician and Dimitris Arvanitis, as if i was equally important.

The opening was a rainbow of colors, amazing, unknown work (loads of forgotten masterpieces among their more famous work, like the National Tourist Organization posters or some of the most recognizable logos in the country) and an endless flow of people that looked as colorful, positive and happy as the works themselves. Yes, that was the special thing about this night: it wasn't the works - it was their effect on people. Never had i seen such a thing, such a transfer of energy from exhibited material to viewer. It was as if, even the less design-savvy, felt they should smile, be happy. And everybody was happy. Was it me? No. This thing really happened. 9 out of 10 people were smiling or laughing. And all around those smiling people some of the most beautiful, lively and witty works of modern graphic design you have ever seen.

Being a 34-year old designer and seeing their body of work you can easily feel intimidated. But at the same time you feel as if you chose to do the most amazing profession on the planet. And if a 85 year old guy like Freddy Carabott is still cracking jokes like he's 25, everything is possible. I'll get back to this amazing man soon...

Monday, November 12, 2007

The beautiful Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley was born in Sydney in 1939 and died in 1992 of a heroin overdose. There something about the fact that he's relatively unknown outside the art world, that he was found dead in a motel room and that i can tell from his strokes that this was a pure, innocent, highly sensitive and beautiful person, that makes me love him. I can't resist wanting to see each and every one of his beautiful works, reminiscent too many times of styles that recently became too trendy in an annoying way. But they have nothing to do with these half-talented opportunists of the design world - his works pay hommage to the history of art and design by reminding (or inspiring) some great and loved ones: Henry Matisse, David Hockney, Javier Mariscal, Loustal, Ralph Steadman - even the drawings of the late Alan Fletcher. I now learn from the web that there was a documentary on him that was screened on ABC in 1989, and that his studio in Sydney is now a museum. Did he ever think all this would happen? I can just tell from his drawings that this was a guy that only drew because he loved it and because his mind and heart were ever-burning with passion, pictures and sensations. He had a huge T-shirt collection: i think that tells a lot about him. Brett Whiteley, you are wonderful. Wherever you are, you surely still draw those magical things.

Penguins in Vouliagmeni

Saturday 10th November, Vouliagmeni Bay, Athens. About 20 people out. Who would have thought that 5 or 10 years ago? All clad in black wetsuits, looking like penguins, riding cool boards. Half of them actually knowing how to do it. A couple of them amazing. A curious crack in the clouds and the beautiful afternoon light making them look like unspecified creatures longing for deliverance from above.

Le geant français

Love these "Make your mix" ads for French N9UF Music Radio.
They're done by Parisian advertising powerhouse Agence V. Just by looking at their premises in their website, you feel intimidated. Sometimes I wonder, is it because they want to impress the big clients, or because they trully love working in such too-impressive-in-their-own-right places? Not sure - but these ads are beautiful.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Beachcombing and chance

Looking for stray objects washed up by the swell on an abandonned seashore at dusk can be a magical ritual. You're probably hungry, after a whole day at the beach; the sun has set and the sea is getting darker, the waves are getting bigger, gulls are screaming and you're wondering if a huge strange fish stranded on the sand is something you should take with you in your plastic bag or not. Some invisible force makes you want to look everywhere, and for more: find more love letters forgotten under the sand, more nautical maps stuck under a piece of wood or more debris from cargo boats with amazing typography on them.

I started doing this on Kolybithra bay on the island of Tinos. I expanded my activities on more islands and beaches and collected about a thousand of them in a period of five years and an amazing photographer, Yiannis Hadjiaslanis photographed them on a white studio backdrop. Then we paired them in funny or just nice ways and now a little book is out - called "flotsam & jetsam". Three hundred of these objects parade the book's spreads and, disintegrated as they are by the sea and the sun, they look like "artefacts from a distant alien civilisation" as a friend artist, Zachos Varfis, told me. There's also some great texts in it - the Ian Jeffrey one is a typical academic tour-de-force. I love this book and this project, and i wonder now, now that the project is done, will I ever look again for more of these objects? Or will they forever remain unwanted garbage on the dunes of Kolybithra?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The rare joy of biting on the Momus tangerine

Yesterday Nicholas Currie, a.k.a. Momus performed in Athens.

I wasn't aware of the fact till last minute, when a friend that knew my fascination for the Momus thing called me up and informed me. At the time I was watching the Eurobasket semifinal where Greece fought bravely against the Spaniards and the referees - and at the end they lost.

At about 10 i was at "Bios" (the venue where the live would take place) but i wasn't till 12 till Nicholas got out on stage. (The picture is from a very nice italian blog called "comme un garcon" - would take some pictures from last night but regretfully my digital camera's battery was dead).

Last time i saw him live was at the cult "An" club, maybe 10 years ago, and i remember sitting at the front row watching him play "The animal that desires" and tears coming down his face. This time he appeared with just a portable mac filled up with mp3s and a microphone that almost didn't work.

Sound quality was so shit, the audience had to shut the fuck up (being noisy - and smoking - are typical Greek habits in live spaces) and the volume had to be higher if you were to be able to listen to anything - but none of it happened. But Nicholas still had his body and his performing talents with him and used both by running among a surprised audience pretending to be a cat while singing "I am a kitten", grabbing chairs and sitting on them, taking drums off the drum set and turning them into improvised tambourines, mimicking rock n' roll or traditional Scottish dance moves in fierce energy, becoming Bowie himself when he played Major Tom, his perfect vibrato making him look almost as good as bowie himself - and artfully blending the classic "Voyager" with "The Windmills of your Mind" in a way that made you feel you were exploding back into a 90s night sky full of possibilities, floating carelessly above dream European cities, where "The Thomas Crown Affair" would be playing on Watchmans in a Place du Tertre little flat or Saint Etienne would sound appropriate playing in an Athenian flat overlooking the city lights. Of course this is but a personal interpretation, cause this is probably how i lived my Momus experience back in the beginning of the 90s, listening to "Summer Holiday 1999", wanting to visit all of the Bretagne lighthouses (only made it till St Malo) and feeling "this rush to live and this wish to die".

There were others there that seemed to know Momus and his songs, and they were there 10 years back at the An club. There was a blond little girl standing close to me in the audience that was looking at him as if he was God himself - and she wasn't the only one. Momus has this effect: once you're a Momus fan, you really fall in love with his universe.

The audience, somehow, at some point shut their mouth and at least half the live took place in less noisy conditions. Requests were mouthed and the predictable I Love yous but i don't need yous (a song that curiously seems to strike some unknown sensitive Greek chord - i even heard this song at parties) and "Hairstyle of the devils" were shouted in a glorious Greek accent.

After about half an hour that Nicholas asked for a guitar, someone (at last) gave him an electric one and he tried playing some guitar-based classics like Lucky like st Sebastian and Murderers the Hope of Women.

He was in great shape and a happy mood, making him laugh at himself when he couldn't find the right chords and would give up laughing. Actually he was, joyfully, like this during the whole set: a guy from another planet (one with a Japanese name), mashing up cultural and musical references like a genius child-anthropologist, orbiting about in his own space, gracefully and playfully, a space just close to ours but a trillion years away from our dirty and shameful reality: the one of our humorless way of dealing with things, of our elections, of our decadent political and social condition, of the green forests turned to black ashes.

Last night would otherwise be indifferent, bleak, ominous, surreal.

But Momus made it radiant, and let us bounce with him on his enormous trampoline: a rare and highly eclectic treat.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Getting wet and killing the bees

Every summer I perform one of my mini-customs: I go to the Kolonaki square kiosk and look for Surfer magazine. In this year's June issue there was a full-page ad about a new HBO show. It pictured a wet-suited surfer standing on a sandy beach watching the ocean (his back turned to us) and his body slightly elevated from the ground. The name of the show was "JOHN FROM CINCINNATI". I torrent-searched it and started watching it a few hours later.

The titles were part Sopranos, part Six Feet Under. The typeface, a clear, white, sans-serif title font that looked a bit like a Myriad condensed or a Blast Gothic, was immaculately placed on the right part of the moving pics in one size and one weight. The footage was a perfectly edited mix of surfing and suburbia and the music made a perfect match. A little masterpiece. I knew this song from somewhere - hours later, i grabbed randomly some cds from my cd rack and played them. First song i played was the title song: "Johnny Appleseed" by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. Weird.

As in every series pilot, first scenes and first impressions count. (Remember the plane-crash scene in Lost's pilot?). So there were these beautiful titles and then the first scene: a guy longboarding on an empty beach at dusk, seen from a distance, far away from the shore. Just a figure moving into a shore-breaking wave and a long sandy terrain in the foreground. The guy floating on the wave silently, no sound, just a bit of wave-breaking - it looked like a fleeting snapshot from a forgotten morning dream, where, before waking up in the real world, you dream about ideal surfing moments placed in utopian places and times.

I was hooked and saw the first 8 episodes back to back. Not just because of the surfing action and the surf-related semiotics in it, but because it was interesting, fresh, raw, ambitious and often emotional and heart-breaking in this strangely marvelous neo-american, "Magnolia" or "American Beauty" kinda way.

The cast included a mature but beautiful Rebecca De Mornay (80s icon next to an almost underage Tom Cruise in "Risky Business") playing the ballbreaking mother/grandmother in a very, very convincingly ballbreaking manner; a Luke Perry NOT bringing you to mind Beverly Hills 90210, full of wrinkles, his lips getting smaller than before; and a Ed O'Neill reminding you less of Al Bundy and more of a cartoon-character mouthing self-pitying, philosophical vietnam-vet monologues. The dialogues, in general, were bordering on the incomprehensible, a true showcase of American
rough-and-rugged language full of creative swearing, hilarious metaphors and surfing lingo- making it more than obvious that Deadwood and the Sopranos played their part in their creation.

As for John himself, he is portrayed less like a human being than an extra-terrestrial or a mirage, bringing insight and luck to the persons he's getting close to. Being a mysterious mix of a healing messiah and a retard that repeats all the words and phrases he hears around, this hilarious and strangely grave-sounding "parrot-talking" is mimicked perfectly by new actor Austin Nichols and his rockabilly-like hairdo adds up to the character's otherworldliness and surrealism. Phrases otherwise told on a casual way by protagonists get another meaning repeated by the strange, miracle-making, "slow" John; as if echoing their words, he almost makes them look themselves stupid and slow, and himself a sage from another planet that knows the score better than anyone.

So there you have it - a new, fresh mini-series, or long movie if you prefer, full of emotional power, intriguing and super-clever dialogue, interesting characters, great acting, amazing art direction, and a lot of ocean spray and wave-breaking in your face. Maybe John from Cincinnati is the natural result of the brewing in the creator's heads of influences by Six Feet Under, Deadwood, David Lynch's universe and the whole boardsports myth that seems at its peak now more than ever, in some strange way. And, yes, adding a bit of stereotypical California beach scenes and babes in the mix wouldn't hurt anyone.

The only thing that did hurt someone was the ratings - they weren't bad, but they weren't good enough. Yes, HBO decided to cancel it and bring a finale on the 10th episode of the 1st season.

As one user in Youtube comments sourfully, echoing the title song's lyrics:

"HBO is after getting the honey, but they're killing all the bees".